There is a lot of talk about differentiation in sales, whether that is at the product level, sales technique level or other factors. Some difference is good, some goes a bit far, unfortunately most of seems to fall short. The main reason is that most vendors and sellers spend time and effort to differentiate themselves from other products, companies, or sales people. As with other miscues in sales, the problem is that most of the effort excludes the only element that counts, the buyer.
Buying and selling are very subjective experiences. While there are reams of tools and means for capturing requirements, allowing buyers to better understand what will help them achieve their objectives, presenting a clear and objective process, there is a range of undercurrents that allows a lot of subjectivity to creep in to the decision. Who among us has not lost a deal where the we were a perfect fit based on requirements. Or conversely won a deal, where on the face of things we were deficient and less cost effective than an alternative. The reason is simple and human, people are very subjective, (and buyers are people), and as such will make decisions using more than just logic, leading to the reality that difference, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder.
While many may not like it, but one advantage to having multiple decision makers or stakeholders in the deal, is that it can naturalize subjectivity, allowing us to better present and leverage real differences we may have. I say we may have, because most leading products have very few real differences, especially in the eyes of buyers. What some vendors think is really different, may not be that important to the market, which is likely why the others have avoided it. With “sameness” rampant in products, the other difference is how you sell, and by extension your sales process. The challenge here is that most people sell in a very similar way, leading to only superficial differences that even the least experienced buyer can see through.
Once you accept that difference is in the eye of the prospect, and not something you can ram down their throat or post on a billboard, you can then switch your approach to understanding how they see themselves and their reality as being different than others they are looking at. Let’s be clear, it may not always be true that what the buyers are looking for is all that different than their neighbor’s, but, we are dealing with buyer perception, not necessarily reality as we see it.
The only option is to have the prospect articulate what they see as being different. And while most sellers will tell you that they are doing that, when observed in action, they are still very much anchored to their product, and features they feel are “solutions” for the buyer’s “pain”. Presentations are geared to highlighting the “vendor’s difference”, rather than the difference the buyer is trying to achieve in their business. Presentations limit our ability to get the prospect to help us differentiate ourselves, mostly because they are centered around the product, and things we believe we are “solving”, that in turn make us different.
Especially early in a cycle, leave you your product, presentations, preconceptions in the car; go in armed only with questions that will help you uncover the buyer’s objectives, and impacts they are looking to deliver to their business. This sounds easy, and is often met by “we’re already doing that”, until we examine the questions many sellers ask, and the reality of some first and early meetings. Remember that the “difference” starts long before you engage, so how you engage, and what happens at your first encounter is key. You may think your PowerPoint is different, but it is still PowerPoint.
If you stay focused on the impacts and outcomes, you will start to establish a difference. When you get the prospect to share their objective, avoid the instinct to map those back to your product. First, drill down on those objectives, why those, how will that change their business, what are related risks, and more. This will allow you to demonstrate your Subject Matter Expertise, and help the prospect validate their direction and means of getting there. If that direction and means are less than optimal, help the buyer reorient their thinking, reorient their direction and path. Now that’s different, especially in a world where sellers are not experts, and seek the safety of “the customer is always right” over pushing back, getting the buyer to see things differently, help them down an alternate path to alternate results. (Easy Kellyanne, it’s just sales). When prospects start their journey, they are more focused on the end than the means, which is why your product, solution, or whatever, is not that important in the early stage.
With difference being in the eye of the prospect, the more we take ourselves and our product out of the early phases of the sales, the more different a prospect will see us; the more we can make them think instead of listen, the greater the difference in experience, leading to different experience and results for both the buyer and the seller.